Sunday, June 22, 2008

Finding a Spot on The Vegetarian/Vegan Continuum (Hint: AVOID THE FAKE CHEESE)

British foodie Jay Rayner went vegan for a week, and wrote up the "experience" for the Observer (reprinted here in The Guardian).

Rayner's a dedicated carnivore, convinced that nature had molded us to kill and consume flesh - and hey, who is he to buck evolution? His experiment wasn't what you'd call "noble". His motives included a "magazine commission", and a desire to lend his knocks against veganism more pedigree. That may explain why, five days into his "week-long" foray, he ran back into the arms of his bleeding animal carcasses.

But Mr. Rayner put the Observer's money where his mouth is. Two thumbs up. And he eked out a couple of interesting insights. First, there's a learning curve to going vegan. As Rayner found out, it's easy to fail to include enough oils and nuts and nut butters in your diet to substitute for the animal fat you've excised. That means not only less energy, but less of the essential fatty acids your body needs to remain healthy.

Rayner also has the misfortune of being European. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But as my wife found out during her two-week sprint at Cannes, even being vegetarian across the Atlantic can break a person. Europeans love their traditional food cultures, and are distrustful of any fad that would displace them. Perhap's that's one reason why we Americans - conscious as we are that our "heritage" is a Frankenstein pastische - are so susceptible to fad diets. The upshot is that Rayner found it a challenge to be impulsively vegan while out and about - much harder than it is here in Seattle, where even most Starbucks carry at least a token vegan pastry.

Second, "vegan" substitutes for meat and dairy fare can be abominable. Rayner:

I also have a special hatred for the kind of cookery such an eating regime tends to produce. I don't hate meat and dairy-free cookery per se. I love the southern Indian vegetarian culinary tradition which is mostly vegan - all those crisp puri filled with nuts and sweet chutneys; all those spiky curries and rotis and dhals. I also like much of the Japanese vegetarian repertoire which just happens to be dairy and egg-free. What I don't like are pretend meat dishes: the veggie burgers and sausages, the pretend lasagnes and moussaka, where ingredients go to die. I simply demand that a dish be good because it is meat-free, not in spite of the fact.

One concoction that garners Rayner's disdain is "cheese" made from "tortured" cashews. I've had the stuff on veggie hots from Seattle's Cyber Dogs; I'll second Rayner on this one. I'm not going to scamper aboard the mock-meat hate-train, though. Veggie "burgers" are great by me; I make my own using black beans, following a recipe from Veganomicon. There's nothing "fake meat" about that burger; the only "burger" quality it mocks is shape. Seitan breaded and deep fried makes a great mock-meat substitute. And I'm addicted to the mock links that Cyber Dogs dishes up.

But the cheese? Oh my God no. Save me from vegan cheese. That is one mock food that will never become part of my animal-free vocabulary. And yes, I've had some "mock-meat" at veggie and vegan restaurants that made me reconsider the entire enterprise.

It's a shame that, at the end of this spectacle, Rayner doesn't commit to reducing his meat consumption, even though he knows what havoc our carnivorus ways are wreaking on our pale blue dot. Still, Rayner's story reaffirms two principles I tell people who are considering a vegan diet.

First, do it because you're motivated to. Do it because you're compelled by the thought of suffering animals and of the environmental impact of animal slaughter - not because you'll feel it'll make you a "good person." Those are two different motivations. The former is about acting out your values; the latter, projecting a persona. It's the moralizers, who turn a simple question such as "would you like some cream with your coffee?" into an hour-long dissertation on the evils of Confined Animal Feeding Operations, who give other vegans a bad name. (True believers give any good idea a bad name.)

Second, take it slowly. Rayner's experiment is the equivalent of going cold turkey on coffee and cigarettes simultaneously. I know few folks who could survive that unscathed.

There's no crime in easing your way into a life of less meat. Start by vowing to get all of your meat from local producers, who can attest that their animals are raised humanely. (Well, you know, up until their throats are slit. You get my drift...) Then, eliminate meat from one, maybe two meals a day, a couple days a week. Move toward making this an everyday occurrence. When you feel you're ready, cut out meat altogether. Stay vegetarian for a while. If you reach a point where you feel like your values compel you to cut out dairy and other animal products as well, approach it the same way: minimize consumption until dropping those items from your diet feels natural.

If at any point along that process one point on the continuum feels "right" by you (e.g., you're good being ovo-lacto vegetarian, but veganism holds no enchantment), then stop where you are. Let it evolve. I wasn't ready to go vegan, for instance, until I'd discovered that I'd developed a taste for soy milk. I'd found the stuff revolting for years - a mixture of cultural prejudice and natural distaste. Once I'd acclimated to it, I was ready to sail "beyond vegetarian."

Try as I might, I can't sustain any militancy with my veganism. (And I've tried.) I was a carnivore for 35 years; to shoot fire and brimstone on the subject this late in life reeks of hypocrisy. I know that people can reasonably have differing views on animal welfare. Perhaps age and the scourge of surviving numerous intellectual spasms has robbed me of my revolutionary zeal, but I feel more inclined to extol moderation than to evangelize my newfound faith. Such missions always end up being more about the preacher than the message.

I'll push for the end of CAFO-style operations and for humane methods of slaughter; I won't insist that the world go vegan. That's not my place. It's also counterproductive: With food celebs like Alton Brown hopping aboard the sustainability bandwagon, it seems there's more to be gained at the moment from encouraging incrementalism than from screaming "MEAT IS MURDER!!!".

That said, I likely won't be having dinner at Rayner's pad anytime soon. His vegan neighbors sound like good folk, though. I wonder if they wouldn't mind a Yankee crashing on their couch for a week or so. I've always wanted to bum around England...